The German artist Gregor Schneider is our architect of the macabre, famously crafting his Minimalist bleak houses, first in a town near Cologne and then in the German Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale. Now, under the auspices of the London-based public-art nonprofit Artangel, Schneider has created a house of horrors in Londons East End. Titled Die Familie Schneider, the work is situated in the shadow of the Victorian Royal Hospital, down a maze of narrow streets full of derelict buildings where Londons working class poor have lived for centuries. There is found Schneiders construction, a pair of adjoining two-story houses, with dirty brown doors and covered windows.
Visitors are given the address after answering a series of screening phone calls; they are then given a key and instructed to enter each house alone, and to return in ten minutes. [The work has proved immensely popular, and no more reservations are being taken. Photography was also forbidden, and adequate images arent available. For additional info, see www.artangel.org.uk.]
Upon entering Die Familie Schneider, visitors walk down a narrow, darkened hallway to a series of doors and a staircase. One door leads to a cramped kitchen where a woman dressed in brown and wearing rubber gloves is robotically washing a dish. Behind her is a grimy little sitting room devoid of decoration except for a curious, small 19th century landscape painting leaning against the wall.
Back out in the hall and up the staircase are two more doors. One leads to a brightly lit bathroom, in which a man, behind the shower curtain, is masturbating, breathing heavily, apparently oblivious to visitors observation. The other door leads to a seedy, motel-like bedroom with a fake white fur bedspread and mirrored wardrobe doors. The air is oppressively hot and smells sickly. Slumped beside the bed is either a child or a small adult -- it is difficult to tell because the person is hidden beneath a plastic garbage bag. There is a sense that some unspeakable crime has been committed here. From the inside, the room appears to have no windows, even though windows are visible from the street. Clearly this is a secret inner room that Schneider has constructed.
A set of stairs past the kitchen leads down to a dank basement filled with garbage cans and upturned chairs. There is a tiny passageway visible from behind a fake bookcase that swings open to reveal another hidden room that can be reached by crawling through a narrow opening and a maze of cement walls. At the end is a dirty and stained childs mattress. One is reminded of serial murderer John Wayne Gaceys crawlspace, filled with the remains of young boys. Back outside the cellar is room the size of a broom closet, filled with packages of cookies and sweets --perhaps meant to lure a small child.
The second house, next door, is a doppelganger of the first. Schneider has not only replicated the labyrinth of interiors in the first house, he has hired identical twins as actors.
Visiting both houses is a curiously deadening experience, as if one is afraid to consider the possibility that these houses were the sites of horrible events that actually occurred, and not just the obsession de jour of a conceptual artist. After all, this neighborhood was once the hunting ground of Jack the Ripper, who disemboweled prostitutes just around the corner and may have been a surgeon at the nearby hospital.
Schneider has perhaps given us a new definition of the art experience -- the viewer as ghost, wandering dream-like through empty corridors and strange rooms, unnoticed by their inhabitants. In any event, stepping into the menacing interior world of Gregor Schneider, who is compelled to keep building to appease his own inner demons, is a bleak and unnerving experience.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a New York art dealer who writes on art.